Monday, May 27, 2019

Rotorua Canopy Tours is stoatally different

Ziplines. They're everywhere these days, hardly anybody ever calls them flying foxes any more, and I've done plenty. They're always fun, especially if you do a tandem one with a friend, and I'm always up for another. Because of my trust/lack of imagination issues, I never feel nervous about accidents, and simply enjoy whizzing along, just mildly irritated that I invariably end up going backwards. So it was easy to say yes to trying out Rotorua Canopy Tours recently. 

Of course, with so much competition, there's a strong focus on providing a point of difference, and RCT has two. For a start, they really are up in the canopy - and of not just your boring old pine forest, but between 1000 year-old rimu trees, above a pocket of the scant 5% of virgin native bush left in New Zealand. So that is special - and the engineering is impressive, too. The lines are fitted between the trees with as little trimming as possible, there are elegant spiral staircases up around the trunks of those big old trees, and dainty swing bridges linking the zipline sections. One of these has side-wires only knee height, so that's an enjoyable novelty (you're still safely clipped on to a line overhead). It's all been very well, and sustainably, done - and that's RCT's second focus.
When they started up in 2012, the Dansey Road Scenic Reserve was a shadow of its current self: full of bare branches, empty forest floor, and no birds. RCT set up a vigorous programme of trapping, and in the first two weeks killed over 800 possums, rats and stoats. They kept at it, experimenting with a variety of traps and methods, and decided to concentrate on the NZ-invented self-resetting Goodnature trap (I've got one - so far it's only caught one fat hedgehog, which is officially a pest but I'm still sad about it). Now they have a partnership with DOC, and some of each punter's ziplining fee goes into the fund for keeping the programme going. 

They're rightfully proud of what they've achieved: on my visit, it was visible from the moment we got out of the van. Virgin bush is thick!  I'm used to being able to see through the tree trunks, but here it was a, well, forest of green. Ferns, vines, fungi... and above it all, towering trees thick with leaves and epiphytes. And birds! Noisy, and bold - RCT has a special licence to feed native birds, so I held out my hand with a mealworm on it, and a bouncy little North Island robin flew down to grab it. Cute.
We heard all about the birds we might have seen, if people hadn't been so greedy and careless - moa, Haast's eagle, huia, NI takahe and lots more, all gone extinct in 800 years - and, later, the detail of the company's efforts to preserve what's left. And then we got on with the ziplining - six of them, 1200m altogether, one 400m long, one tandem set, and all way above the forest floor, invisible now under the solid green canopy of tree leaves and tree fern fronds (which are especially beautiful from above: like a crown). 

It was such good fun. There were only three of us - the others were a US couple three days out from their wedding - so we had time to sit on the cliff walk, dangling our feet over the void 50m below, and have a cup of coffee, a biscuit and a chat. The clipping on and off was reassuringly brisk and efficient, Kiwi guides Emily and David were cheerfully laidback and droll, the day was bright and sunny, and the zooming along was exciting. We finished with an 18m controlled abseil, which one of us (not me - you had to ask?) did upside down. 

Rotorua Canopy Tours - recommended.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

The rough before the smooth

I paid for my own travel to last week's TRENZ conference in Rotorua. Last year they flew me down to Dunedin FOC but, since Rotorua is less than a 4-hour drive from Auckland, they laid on a coach from the airport instead. Getting to and from the airport would have cost me more than taking a coach from Auckland Central right into Rotorua, I discovered, so I opted to go by Skip Bus. What a revelation: it cost just $24 return, standard fare, and the bus, far from being the backpacker-level transport I expected, was just your regular, comfortable, long-distance coach, that left on time, had free WiFi, and was super-efficient. Amazing value. Recommended! 

So, anyway, to get some more immediate payback than I'll achieve from my more general begging around the exhibition halls, I arranged to stay an extra night and do some stuff. Said stuff was a zipline outing with Rotorua Canopy Tours in the morning, followed by a treatment at the Polynesian Spa. Excitement followed by relaxation, was the selling-point. Made sense. And it would probably have worked, had I been a more touchy-feely type. Not a big fan of the massage, I have to say. I've had plenty, most of them free, and the only ones I've actually enjoyed and felt beneficial were one delivered by a former sports masseur at Uluru, and the medicinal ones I went to back home after dislocating my shoulder in Norfolk.

All the others were mainly just intensive moisturising sessions, really. A couple made me feel uneasy. Many were physically uncomfortable, and not in a beneficial way. One left me with bruises. This one? It started fine, the usual fluffy robe, hushed lounge, herbal teas. The Spa is right by the lake, surrounded by steam from pools fed by two geothermal springs. There are 28 pools, all different temperatures, some acidic, some alkaline. What I should have done was go for a wallow before the treatment, but there wasn't time (I have done it before - it's lovely).

Instead I was taken to a chilly treatment room and laid out under a towel, wearing disposable knickers, while the oddly-named Dante rubbed an exfoliating mud/kiwifruit pip/ground walnut shell mixture all over me. It was hard to relax, especially when she got to my thighs, where the prodding was painful. Then she slathered on a different mud treatment, which went on nice and warm, but soon cooled, wrapped me in a towel and left me for a while to reflect on the marvel that people pay good money for this. The best bit was then stepping into a hot shower to rinse it all off - that  was glorious. But after that I had to get back on the bench for the moisturising, with honey and lavender, which was ok; and then Dante delivered a scalp massage, which was SO uncomfortable I was gritting my teeth and willing it to be over - but it went on forever. Horrible.

Finally the treatment came to an end and I - of course - said, "Lovely! Thank you, Dante", and scuttled out of there, determined that I will never, never, submit to a free massage again. (Unless it's feet. Foot massages I do enjoy.) And I didn't even get to soak in the pools because it seemed a waste of what would otherwise have been my money to wash all that moisturiser off straight away.

UPDATE: Massages are like childbirth - the pain is soon forgotten in the pleasure of the result. And, regular πŸ˜ƒ reader, there was a result: my skin afterwards, a week later, is still noticeably, delightfully, smooth and soft. I had no idea I'd been so barnacly. All that exfoliation - polish, to use their unexpectedly entirely accurate term - had an actual, empirical, beneficial result. Who'd have thought it?

Friday, May 17, 2019

Not dancing in the dark - much more fun than that

One of the many enjoyable things about working in the travel industry is that even when you're at something as intense and focused as the annual exhibition/conference, there's a lot of fun to be had. I'm sure other types of business do junkets, but I suspect most of them are ostensibly anyway worthy team-building exercises and suchlike. Not us. In tourism it's all about showing people a good time, ideally better than the other suppliers. 
So this week I've been to a couple of parties at the Blue Baths, which were built in 1933 and feature geothermally heated fresh water in an outside pool. There used to be an indoor deep diving pool too, but it's been covered over and is now used for functions like our two. The first one was good, but the second was brilliant - lots of atmospheric theatre smoke drifting about in arty lighting, and an actual theme: earth, air, fire and water. The food stations were in on it - despite the lure of the seafood, the best dish by far were the pulled pork bites with crackling, of which I had far more than my share. The entertainment fitted the themes too. At various points during the evening, groups of local performers emerged out of the shadows to dance for us, and they were very good, especially the semi-traditional Māori haka, which was dramatic and spine-tingling - though the Parris Goebel-style hiphop was excellent too.
Best of all though, was the wind-up function on the last night up at the Skyline. This place is a must-do for any tourist to Rotorua, and I've been there a number of times - but never at night, and never when everything was FREE! We gondola-ed sedately up to discover the hugest feast I've ever encountered - honestly, it just went on and on, room after room. There was one room devoted entirely to cheese, and another to desserts - and it was all there for the taking! 
There was an accomplished DJ mixing her heart out, as well as a programme of live music that included Tiki Taane - so there was dancing (to observe) as well as the eating, the drinking, and the gazing out over the lights of Rotovegas below. Best of all, though, were the rides that people go up there for. First was the Skyswing, where three of us were strapped in and hauled up backwards 50m high. The one in the middle had the release button, which set us loose to zoom down at up to 150km/h in the dark, shrieking fit to bust. It was so much fun, and all over far too quickly for my stomach to organise itself into a protest.
Next I did the luge, choosing the scenic route solely because there were oysters and champagne halfway down. Even though it's the gentler route, you can still go pretty fast if you ignore the Slow signs, and in the dark it felt much faster anyway. There were indeed oysters and bubbles to enjoy, and I did, before remounting my luge to continue to the bottom. 
It was very pleasant, creaking slowly back up on the chairlift, listening to the music and watching the spotlit luge riders rumbling past underneath. Then I did the last activity, which was the zipline. It's 400m and again felt faster in the dark, so it was fun too - but not as exciting as the final thing, which I hadn't known about beforehand. When you get to the platform at the end of the zipline, you're instructed to step off backwards - in the dark - to do a 40m freefall to the bottom. That's freefall as in controlled abseil, naturally, but it did give me a moment's pause before I stepped into the void. Final thrill of the night!

So, well done TRENZ, and well done Rotorua - you're a great combination.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Skiving off

Despite complaining in the last post about the relentless pressure of business hours, business people, and business, I have to concede that the TRENZ organisers are well aware that some of us attendees are delicate flowers, and they timetable an afternoon of activity for us all, away from the halls and their every-20-minutes appointment schedules. My choice from the media selection was the Tarawera Experience, which started with something familiar but then entered literally new territory.
It was as well that I've done a floatplane flight over Mt Tarawera before because, irritatingly, the cloud was too low for us to head over that spectacularly huge split in the mountain from when it erupted in 1886, killing 100+ people and wrecking the local geography. It was disappointing for the others though. We were flying with VolcanicAir, who are very efficient and friendly, even if their choice of "the three lightest people" for the small plane was brutally brisk. The rest of us, and our hurt feelings, piled into the 9-seater, each with a window, and took off across the lake, flying over the lushly green Mokoia Island. 
We hopped over to the next lake, Tarawera, and landed there super-smoothly, in a cloud of spray, and taxied to its edge. We paddled ashore, shoes tucked under our arms, and wandered along to Hot Water Beach, which I had thought only existed on the Coromandel, but no, here was another. It was hot, too - boiling, in fact, and I scalded my big toe briefly.
Then we met Karen of Totally Tarawera, who welcomed us with a karakia and led us on board Sophia, a nice old boat in which we glided across the lake. It was named after the famous Māori guide from back in pre-eruption days, who took tourists to see the world-renowned pink and white terraces. If you think tourism is a relatively recent phenomenon, and also that New Zealand is much too far away for you to even contemplate flying to, consider that in the mid-1800s people came here from Europe by sailing ship - taking at least a couple of months - and then spent a week bumping down-country in a horse-drawn carriage to Rotorua, to hike, in their clunky Victorian clothes, through the bush to see these famous and beautiful glistening silica terraces.
They do look spectacular in paintings from the time - but now, post-eruption, there's no sign of them. After trailing across an isthmus through native bush decimated by Australians - possums chomping the leaves and shoots in the treetops, wallabies gnawing at their bases, and wattles pushing in and crowding the native trees out - we got to Lake Rotomahana where we boarded another boat and were taken to where the terraces used to be, now hidden under the water. All is not entirely lost, since these days there is of course an app that allows you to see, moving the phone around, what would have been the outing's highlight. To be honest, it was a bit underwhelming on a titchy phone screen, and I was more taken by the delicious packed lunch they gave us. There was plenty of good thermal activity along the lake edge to enjoy though, including a small but helpfully reliable geyser.
The last phase of the outing was in a bus along the Waimangu Volcanic Valley, which I might have been to before, but too long ago to remember. It's worth a visit, with an inviting walkway along the valley past a series of pretty impressive thermal lakes. There's a good bus service for shuttling back and forth. Steam wound up through the trees, swirling across lake surfaces, parting and then concealing again the milky turquoise waters. Fumeroles spattered, hot streams splashed over rocks coated red and yellow with minerals, there were hollow gurgles deep inside cracks and caverns. Just your regular Rotorua scenery, then.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

This working life

This week I am at TRENZ, which is the annual tourism jamboree here - on a vastly smaller scale, the equivalent of IPW in the US, which I will be missing again this year (it's going to be in Anaheim, and it will consequently be spectacular). Our event is in Rotorua this time, or Roto-vegas as it's sometimes called. That's because the town is full of things to do, and is a bit tacky and gaudy - plus, it smells, though that's solely a Rotorua thing. There's also a big emphasis on Māori culture, which is another element missing from the Nevada original.

I haven't been here for three years, so it's fun to see it again, wreathed in sulphurous steam from all its thermal activity, and bristling with all sorts of new activities since my last visit. Bristling, but not buzzing, exactly - just ticking over quietly, from what I can see. It is winter, after all. What is buzzing, and humming, virtually seething, is the Events Centre by the lakefront, where more exhibitors than ever are showing off their wares to tourism people from - theoretically - all over the world, but mainly Asia from what I can see. Most of them are agent-type people, but there are media too, and I am one of them.

This is my fourth tourism conference, and it's still a bit of a novelty. This time though I am a lot more practised and brazen about my begging spiel, which essentially amounts to showing selected operators what my stories look like, and then asking for free stuff. I'm quite shameless. What is still hard to get used to, is getting up at 7am and reporting for duty at 9am and then spending the entire day on my feet, talking to people or sitting on a hardish chair listening to moderately dull media presentations. That's not how we freelance writers roll, you know. Or not me, anyway. No, I ease into the day with a morning walk, a leisurely breakfast with the newspaper, and after my habitual coffee and nuts, might sit down at the laptop (in an armchair, in the sun), at about 11am. And then I work solidly till it's time for the 6pm news. Except when I don't, of course. It depends a bit on Twitter.

It's a privileged lifestyle, I know, and I actively (the opposite of actively) enjoy it - especially when I shall return to it after three long days of business hours, business people, and business. It's just plain exhausting. I was going to go on to say something about having forgotten about that kind of working life but in fact, with a history of being a student, a groom and then a teacher, the 9-5 routine has always been foreign to me.I don't know how you, dear regular πŸ˜ƒ reader, do it.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Music and food

I was at a long and very enjoyable Intrepid lunch yesterday where the CEO outlined the company's new focuses for the year ahead and then spent the rest of the meal enthusiastically discussing the (highly unusual) good news about English football teams' achievements in the current Champions League. But there was plenty of travel talk too, since of course everyone there was in the trade in one way or another.

I chatted for a while with someone who'd just got back from the Kimberley in north-west Australia, and we were enthusing about it to someone who hadn't (yet) been. I raved about the bright orange cliffs, the blue, blue sea, and how remote it was, almost impossible to get to by road, but very accessible on a cruise, like the one I did.
Right then, the restaurant's musak launched into a track by Passenger - and no, regular πŸ˜ƒ reader, his professional name is not the tenuous connection I'm trying to make today, and nor is the fact that I've seen him in concert here in Auckland. What is, is that on that cruise on the Kimberley Quest I met a brilliant, and very individual, photographer called Jarrad Seng, who I recommend you follow on Instagram if only for his terrifying, and insouciant, perched-high-with-no-railing photos from buildings and mountains. One of his regular gigs is to be the on-tour photographer for - now, who do you think? 

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Cheering links

We're good with this now, aren't we, regular πŸ˜ƒ reader? Coincidences are standard, connections are daily occurrences, nothing to see here, right? [Er, see here, right.]

Today, it's the announcement that  a weapon-detecting AI system is to be installed in the Al Noor mosque in Christchurch that was the site of the first terror attack on 15 March. It's the first time in the world that it will be used in a place of worship. It was invented in San Francisco - actually, Silicon Valley, so more accurately that would be San Jose - and is already in use in public spaces and (sigh) schools in the US. It apparently notifies authorities within seconds if it identifies a threat.

Since the March attacks, an organisation called Keep Mosques Safe has been set up, and it's they who are funding it for Christchurch. And where is KMS based? In Qatar, where it was the initiative of the chief executive and founder of Al-Ameri International Trading. I'm a bit vague about the function of the company but, now that I've (just!) been to Qatar, I can easily believe it has both enormous funds at its disposal, and some forward-thinking and generous people behind it.

So, Christchurch, San Jose and Qatar, all coming together in a tidy and beneficial bundle.It's very satisfying, and goes a small way towards mitigating what has become, routinely, the spirit-sapping ordeal of reading the world, and domestic, news.

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Qatar famil, Day Four - Highs and lows (both literal and figurative)

With thanks to Qatar Airways for this trip

Considering that it was after midnight when we left the hotel, and we had been for three days in passive famil-mode (no independent thought or action required), it was a triumph that when our booked ride to the airport didn't turn up, one of us managed to summon an Uber. It was a minor hiccup, and we were delivered to the First Class/Business Class terminal where we lapsed again into passivity as a nice young lady sat us down while she checked us in, and then took us to the Al Mourjan Business Lounge where some of us fell on the wine - that's figuratively fell, since it's kept in a locked cabinet to which only the attendant has the key.
I wandered off for a quick look at Hamad International Airport, which is very new and shiny and airy, and full of high-end shops - Harrod's! - as well as more useful ones. I was pleasantly surprised to see that WH Smith sells Whittaker's chocolate - NZ's own, if you don't recognise that name, and the best. Plonked in the middle of a huge intersection space was a most unexpected giant teddy bear. Unexpected - and creepy. It's a work by Swiss artist Urs Fischer called Lamp Bear, made of cast bronze with a canary yellow finish. It's 7m high, weighs about 11 tonnes - and its back is pierced by the stand of a lamp that fits over its head like a bonnet, and makes you think irresistibly of an interrogation scenario. It cost $6.8 million, and was bought at Christie's in New York by a member of the Qatari royal family, who presumably thought s/he was doing air travellers a favour by making it their last impression of Qatar.

We continued to sit in the lounge, not giving a thought to anything, when our escort turned up looking a bit agitated and we remembered that, oh yes, we should probably see about getting to the gate - especially since the flight was meant to leave in just half an hour. She hailed a passing electric car for us, while she took, I think, a train, and came running to meet us at the far-distant gate where, presumably with considerable relief, she was able to hand us over.
Our flight back, again on a Boeing 777, was in the old-style business class, with regular seats in 2:2:2. It actually felt a lot roomier than QSuite, without the walls, but was obviously much less private, so it was just as well my neighbour was a pleasant businessman from Christchurch. To my attendant's disappointment and later concern, I went straight to sleep and managed to snooze most of the way, though I did mollify her by accepting breakfast at one point. This flight was shorter, just the 16-odd hours - not, as you may be thinking, regular πŸ˜ƒ reader, because it's downhill, but because we were flying east, against the rotation of the planet.

We arrived on time around 4am local time, and were lucky to land because of thick fog at Manurewa. I was the sole passenger on the SkyBus into the city, but far from that on the first ferry of the day, which was crammed full with eager people heading to the island for the Waiheke Half Marathon. And then I fell at the last fence because for some reason there were no buses or taxis at Matiatia so I ended my indulgent, luxuriously comfortable trip by literally hauling my suitcase home up and down hills for 3.3km. Welcome back to the real world.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Qatar famil, Day Three - Mainly architecture, plus false feathers

With thanks to Qatar Airways for this trip
Famil itineraries inevitably include such laughable listings as: 'Breakfast at leisure. 9am depart for...' but this morning, body clocks being what they are, we all woke early and met at the buffet with a couple of hours to spare before our first appointment. After a bit of excitement when a metal ceiling sprinkler cap fell unexpectedly from a height of about five metres and hit one of us on the arm (leading to confusion, apologies, the taking of personal details - and then, nothing. Not even a compensatory bowl of fruit), we set off for some private exploring.
Since the other two are proper journalists, they were keen to go and connect with Al Jazeera, or at least visit its nearby tower - but it turned out to be a disappointingly undistinguished building that we didn't even try to enter. On my suggestion, we then walked on to the Sheraton Grand hotel, which was within sight, being scandalised en route by spotting a Western girl wearing a short dress, with bare shoulders. (Apparently you can get away with that sort of thing outside but might be refused entry to some places.)
Well, it was worth the walk in the heat: one of the first developments here, a video in the lobby showed it being constructed in 1978 in the middle of nowhere - a great act of faith. Now, of course, the city has crept around it but, being right by the water, it still has a peaceful feel. It's impressive enough outside, built as a pyramid; but inside it's a dazzling combination of space, angles and curves. Very luxurious, too, as you would expect.
We later got kudos from Yegor for being so energetic, and showing initiative. He is used to his tour guests falling asleep, he said - no reflection on his narration, I promise. He is, incredibly, a keen cyclist, and very happy that all those new roads have intrinsic cycle paths; and he's so optimistic about the new metro currently being constructed that he's sold his car, and is very scathing about the traffic jams we spent a lot of time stuck in today.
Our city tour took us first to The Pearl, an artificial island mostly occupied by expats in apartments, and the upper-end shops targeted at them. How upper-end? Rolls Royce Phantom level, literally. Plus there were lots of private yachts moored along the waterways, air-conditioned shopping/restaurant galleries all differently-themed - Alhambra, Venice... - and immaculate gardens and fountains everywhere. It was like Disneyland for adults. With added Porsches and Ferraris.
There was more of the same in Katara, though more locals-oriented. It's all new, but paying tribute to the past and to the culture - like a beautiful tiled mosque, looming dove-cotes, pointed archways, another mosque in gold glass tiles - and also other cultures, like a full-size Italian marble amphitheatre. 
The idea is you come here to pray, eat, shop and swim, everyone together - and also to enjoy the fine things. Ramadan is coming up soon and, although that means daytime fasting and penitence, at night they party like Thanksgiving and Christmas put together, and all the decorations are going up now. 
This includes actual Christmas-style trees made of Bohemian glass, worth $50,000 each, displayed outside in public areas. Qatar is such a law-abiding place, you see, there's no reason why not. Apparently it's standard for cars to be left unlocked, keys in the ignition, laptops on the seat, and nothing happens. Carolyn puts her handbag down in clothes shops while she browses and everything is always there when she comes back. Astonishing.
We went to the Souq Waqif for lunch so everything was closed, unfortunately - but one thing open was the Falcon Hospital, where you take your bird for replacement feathers, or operations, or medicine. Falconry is huge here - you're even allowed to take yours on board planes with you (though in a cage, I was disappointed to learn).
An unexpected call after that was at the Msheireb Museum, which tells the unvarnished story of slavery in the Arab states - of Africans, of course - which continued up till an unnervingly recent date. We only flitted through, but it looked like a horribly fascinating story.
Next came the Museum of Islamic Art, which used to be the pride of Doha but has just had its nose put out of joint by the National Museum. Still, it's on its own island in the harbour and has a distinctive design, modelled on a burkha. Inside is a classily-displayed collection of calligraphy, carpets, tiles, pottery, jewellery and knives - but most people are drawn outside to the classic framed view across the harbour to the city's skyscrapers. The staircase in the foyer is also deservedly famous.
After a brief rest, we set out in the evening for the classic dhow cruise, which I'd been looking forward to, and which didn't disappoint. It was still hot outside, though, even in the darkness with the breeze - so, more of a fan-assisted oven effect - but the views of the illuminated skyscrapers were brilliant. 
We glided along, as jet skis and jet boats whizzed past (one got stopped by the water police) to The Pearl again, its date palms all lit up, and then a small boat delivered our dinners - spicy kebabs and rice - which we ate as we cruised back again, listening to Arab music that was both hypnotic and incredibly drawn out - a song can last 10-15 minutes.
Back at the hotel, which was buzzing with expats, as well as locals in white robes (men) or black (women), all out enjoying Thursday (= Friday) night entertainments, we went to our rooms to rest and prepare for our long, long journey home. Which begins at 2.25 tomorrow morning.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Qatar famil, Day Two - Sea, but not sick

With thanks to Qatar Airways for this trip
There was no actual Bircher muesli on the otherwise dazzlingly comprehensive and multi-cultural breakfast buffet at the hotel, W Doha, but there was a delicious mango soft muesli that was almost as good, and certainly eminently acceptable. I know, regular πŸ˜ƒ reader, you were keen to get that report.

And then our busy day began, we three Kiwis, plus Lori and Carolyn from Qatar Airways, guided by Yegor, of Discover Qatar. He is Russian and one of the expats who make up almost 90% of Qatar's population and keep the country's economy ticking over very nicely, thank you, for the citizens. They enjoy the highest standard of living in the world (paying 0% tax) and it's all funded not by oil, as you would think, but gas - they have enough to keep the world supplied with LPG for the next couple of centuries, Yegor told us.

He told us lots of things about Qatar, about which he is hugely enthusiastic, but even he was out-enthused by the people we met at the striking Burj Al Bidda. Here we learned all about the country's hosting of the World Cup (er, that's the football world cup) which is taking place here in 2022. They won the bid back in 2010, but excitement is building fast now, and it's going to be a huge event for Qatar. They're building eight new stadiums, all different, and are so proud of everything that we all bit our tongues when, showing us the models, they were especially rapturous about the Al Wakrah, which looks distinctly vulval. (Officially, it's meant to resemble a bike helmet. Yeah, right.) The stadium construction is all very eco, and afterwards the top levels of most of them are going to be donated to countries that are less well off. Only one has been fully completed so far but they build things fast here - are you listening, Auckland? - and there's no doubt that everything will be ready on time.

The most amazing thing to me about all these stadiums - stadia - is that they will be air-conditioned, even though they are open-topped. Managing heat is as essential as breathing here, because it gets so incredibly hot. The business day begins at 7am because of that (and the prayer schedule) and in the middle of the day everywhere looks dead because no-one sensible is outside. Summer heat is starting to build now, and it got up to 37 degrees today. The record is a phenomenal 50.4 degrees, but even the more usual low 40s in summer sounds horrendous to me. Winter is best - in the 20s.
We drove along the Corniche, past a great cluster of beautiful new skyscrapers, all different, all lovely, past the huge, more traditional Government building, Amiri Diwan - also new, there's nothing old here - to the National Museum. This place is mind-blowing. It only opened last month, so it's buzzing with locals and school parties, but it's always going to be a huge attraction because it's such an amazing building. It's modelled on a desert rose, which is a natural formation of sand that looks like a bundle of potato chips. The construction is all discs, randomly intersecting with each other, sharp-edged and inscribed with cracks. How you would even draw the initial diagram I have no idea, let alone actually build the thing.
But there it is, and its galleries are full of beautifully displayed beautiful things - history natural and human, in airy spaces with moving projections on the angled walls. It's an absolute must.
After a lunch that defeated even the guys - we kept thinking we'd finished, and then they would bring yet another delicious course - we set off in a 4WD with Mohammed from Sudan to, I was afraid, lose it all. My last desert safari was not enjoyable, the dune-busting making me feel distinctly sick - but this was much better, driving-wise. We stopped off en route for a camel experience where I watched, rather than rode, having been there, done that; but I enjoyed getting up close with a falcon.
Then we drove along and over the sand dunes, tipping sideways and forwards to go up and down some especially steep ones: fast enough to shriek happily but gently enough not to get nauseous. It was a bit disappointing to see so much litter scattered over the sand, especially since the city is so neat - but it was also lovely to see the clear blue sea, and surprising to fetch up at the Inland Sea so close to Saudi Arabia that we could see it clearly across the water, and I got a Vodafone welcome to it on my phone.
We repaired then to a beachside desert hotel and, as the sun set remarkably quickly, we sat in a gazebo by the water, enjoying the comparatively cooler air. Then there was more food - delicious, again - and finally we drove back across the trackless sand in the pitch dark, and along the fancy new roads (so new they don't even appear on the GPS yet) to the city's sparkling skyscrapers and, finally, bed.


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